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Wake Forest Professor Works to Inform: Dennis Lemly’s Fight Against Selenium Pollution

October 25, 2011

Dennis Lemly believes in the power of information, even if at times, he wished it was a little more powerful.

“They may choose to use it. They may choose not to use it. I don’t want any decision to be made without that information on the table.”

Lemly, a staunch advocate for fish and wildlife protections, works to inform policy makers and government officials about the dangers of energy pollution on communities around the world.

Mountaintop coal mining is one of the most pressing issues related to Lemly’s research. “They’ve never taken the time to look at the details. Once you give them the details they say, ‘bam’, I never knew about this.”

A mountain in West Virginia prior to mountaintop mining

Mountaintop coal removal is a thorn in the side of many traditional mining communities and environmentalists. It is a type of surface mining, as opposed to shaft mining, where the mountain is essentially blown up to expose the coal, making it easier to remove.  The coal is then easier to extract, but as Lemly’s research shows, the waste it drops into the water systems is detrimental to fish, wildlife and the public health.

“Thousands of streams destroyed completely. They’re gone forever,” he said.

A mountain in West Virginia after mountaintop removal

The destruction is what makes mountaintop mining so dangerous. Consider this metaphor. It’s similar to blowing up the entire BB&T field to simply look at just one row of bleachers. “They will tear off 300-400 feet to get at a coal seam that’s two feet,” said Lemly.

Lemly focuses his research on selenium, a waste product of mining and energy plants. When selenium is dumped into the water streams, the effects are devastating.

Pictures of fish contaminated with selenium provide a stark example of the dangerous trace element. Selenium  damages their spines so much that they become crooked, almost “V” shaped.

Selenium contamination causes v-shaped spines in fish.

Lemly was one of the first researchers in the country to tie selenium to energy waste. He’s been studying since the late 1970s . His early work focused on Belews Lake in Winston-Salem.

“When I went out to look at the site to scope it out as one of my field study sites, I found the fish were disappearing from the lake, but I didn’t understand why.  But, I knew there was a power plant nearby,” said Lemly.

The Lake  was near one of the largest power plants in the region which was contaminating the lake with selenium. (Since then, Belews Lake has been cleaned up and now has more stringent water quality standards). At that time, not much was known about the material. Now, Lemly has decades of research on the effects of the waste product which is often dumped into waterways by coal powered plants.  It has devastating effects on fish, wildlife and the water system.

“The phone has been busy for thirty years. The selenium issues have expanded, but a lot are still here. A lot of the same issues are going on today that were going on thirty years ago, said Lemly.  “It very seldom that fish and wildlife issues drive action. They’re usually at the end of the train. That’s why its important for me to get that information out there, front and center,”

In some ways, selenium is just a starting point. There is more work to be done in order to discover the real effects of energy waste pollution.

“For my perspective, there’s a lot of contaminated water coming out and very little information on what it is doing. A lot of unanswered questions,” he said.

Although Lemly’s research focuses on fish and wildlife, their problems are typically indicative of a broader more widespread public health issue with the waterways. Correcting those issues are a core component to creating a sustainable earth and, in the case of mountaintop mining, sustainable economic policies.

Proponents of mountaintop mining often tout the jobs the mining brings to regions that struggle with high unemployment. Lemly says that’s a weak argument. Once the mountaintop is removed the jobs are gone too.

“It is a graphic example of sustainability because of the job situations.  Those jobs aren’t going to be there long. The economic system is totally destroyed. There is no continuity. There is no sustainability,” he said.

Lemly says jobs from mountaintop mining are fleeting and unstable.  “Those mine jobs aren’t what they used to be. The wages they pay are a third or less. It’s a fallacy. It really is a fallacy,” he said.

When unemployment is high, selling mountaintop mining jobs is an easy task.  “It’s good for politicians. They can stand up and say we need jobs, but it is really deception if you’re looking at anything related to sustainability,” he said.  “It’s a perpetual problem.  When the mines are closed and everything is gone. “Those people are going to be scratching their head and thinking, ‘where’s my job now?’,” he said. “The local folks are suffering. “

It often comes down to money. “It is the dollar. It is the job. It is for the greater good,” Lemly said referring to the industry’s talking points.  He believes ecologists need to do a better job of tying environmental costs with economic ones. Indeed, the mining and business lobby is a tough one to fight economically and socially.

“They love to promote the good stuff they do. When they are doing something that benefits fish and wildlife like when they put corn out for the deer,” said Lemly. “And then there’s the other side. They’re dumping stuff and causing problems. They see the good stuff. They don’t see this history of problems.”

Informing the public and the decision makers is the first step to change, but Lemly wants them to listen.

“How bad does it have to get?  You have to have the ecological equivalent of a nuclear meltdown for people to stop and say wait a minute. We are doing more harm than good.”


Dennis Lemly is a Research Biologist with the Unites States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. He is also an associate research professor with Wake Forest’s Department of Biology. He is also the author of the book Selenium Assessment in Acquatic Ecosytems:  A Guide for Hazard Evaluation and Water Quality Criteria.